TW: Suicide, Depression, Anxiety
All throughout my teenage years, I struggled with my mental health. During a time when mental health was stigmatized, I suffered in silence, afraid that I would be judged, that my struggles weren’t valid, or that nobody would care.
When I was 14, I was violently attacked by a group of my own peers. Overnight, I went from being a regular teenage girl, struggling with the same self-doubt and angst we all have as teenagers, to being overcome with anger and self-hatred. After seeing my first real glimpse of how cruel and uncaring the world could be, I lost my faith in humanity; I stopped wanting to be a part of it. My whole world fell into a grey haze of deep depression. I no longer wanted anything to do with the world around me or anyone in it. Every day became a struggle. On the surface, I was still a ‘normal’ teenage girl trying to find her way. Underneath it all, every step I took, every social interaction, every breath taken, was forced. I thought nobody would understand; I didn’t really understand myself. There were people all over the world who had endured so much hardship, and I worried that my struggles weren’t valid.
It’s a sad but true fact that bullying and peer violence happens every single day. I blamed myself for not being strong enough to cope with something that so many others move on from so easily. I felt completely alone. But I carried on as normal, and never told anyone how I was feeling. As I reflect back now, I know I probably wasn’t alone. More than likely, I was not the only one struggling, and I was not the only one afraid to speak out.
Against all odds, I survived my teenage years. As a young adult, I was excited at the prospect of finally leaving my depression behind me, and joining the rest of society as a happy, well-balanced, adult. After briefly being lured into a false sense of security, my depression quickly caught up with me, and I spiralled into a relapse once again. I was living in a new world where phrases like ‘terror attack’ and ‘war on terror’ were the new norm, and the world was becoming darker around me.
I became obsessed with the idea of losing the people I loved, with losing the happiness I had been searching for my whole life. Unable to find peace, I lost all hope that I would ever be truly happy, and I decided to end my life. I didn’t want to die; I just didn’t want to live anymore. I convinced myself that I had tried my hardest, but failed. I told myself that I was a burden, that the world would be better off without me. But when I woke up the next day, alive, I felt even worse, knowing how much I had hurt those around me. I knew I had to try to find another way. I had to find hope again.
That’s when I started to write. I wrote about the events of my past that I needed to address in order to heal. I relived every difficult moment in my life, and I admit that it took it’s toll on my mental health, as I was forced to face the demons I had spent my life running from. Seeing my problems and my feelings written down in front of me, everything started to fall into place. I started to understand my mental health issues, and I started to understand it was part of what makes me who I am.
I had always considered myself weak. But now, here I was: I got through it! I wasn’t weak at all, I was stronger for everything I had gone through. And suddenly, and probably for the first time in my life, I was proud of myself. I was proud of everything that I had conquered. I was proud that I was still here, fighting, no longer having to force myself to keep breathing.
Writing allowed me to understand why I had become depressed, and showed me that if and when I fall again in the future, I would know how to get back up. But understanding the past didn’t change the fact that I still saw the world in black and grey. I knew now that what I needed was to find colour again. I needed to know that I wasn’t wasting my time with this world. There had to still be beauty worth fighting for. So, I went out and tried to find it.
I travelled to the most diverse place I could think of, somewhere as far from home and from my comfort zone as I could. I found myself in South Africa. If there was anywhere in the world that I could learn how to be happy in an unfair world, it was here. As I travelled along the east coast of South Africa, I passed through one village which I will remember for the rest of my life. Coffee Bay is a rural village set on the coast, where people live in destitute conditions, yet still manage to find joy and meaning in life. There were women sat on the ground stirring pots between their knees outside their mud hut houses. Children in rags ran barefoot across the dirt ground as they laughed and played, completely unaware of the hardships they faced.
They welcomed us into their village with open arms, and hosted a bonfire. They shared music, songs, and the few resources they had, and they were genuinely enthusiastic to show us their world. Was it really that simple? Is it possible to just be happy with what you are given? Is it possible to be so poor, yet be so rich? Is it possible to live with depression and be happy at the same time? That day, I learned that not everything had to be in technicolour like I had been searching for. It can be colour and it can be greyscale. I learned that I don’t have to be happy or depressed, I can live with both. The world can be cruel and dark and unfair, but it can also be beautiful and peaceful and full of hope. My mental illness is a part of me, and it always will be. Learning that it is possible to mix dark with light, I found a new harmony within me.
However, seeing the world in colour doesn’t stop us from being overwhelmed by the pressures of everyday life. As an adult living in a fast paced, demanding world, I struggle with anxiety. When I had my first panic attack, I didn’t know what was happening to me. My heart beat like it was trying to break out of my chest, I couldn’t breathe, and I had an overwhelming need to run, but had no idea where or what from. I thought I was dying, which only made my symptoms worse. Before I knew it, I was living in a constant state of physical panic and had no idea what was wrong with me. After so many years of suffering in silence, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. This time, I would get the help I needed before it was too late.
After visiting my GP and explaining to her (in the midst of a panic attack), that I was 99% sure I was about to drop dead of a heart attack, she calmly disagreed, and informed me that I was having a panic attack. “No” I disagreed. “I’m in the best mental state I’ve ever been in in my life. I’m not anxious, I’m having a heart attack!” I accused her of not taking my symptoms seriously, of not listening to me (whilst struggling to breathe and sweating profusely from every pore on my body). “Are you under a lot of stress at the moment?” She asked. “No, no more than usual.”
But when I described to her my current situation, and I heard it spoken aloud, I was shocked. I had grown so used to being treated badly, to treating myself badly, that I didn’t even see it anymore. After dealing with extreme pressure and workplace bullying for over 3 years, when it suddenly stopped, all the pent up stress was trying to release from my body at once. Hearing it out loud was the wakeup call I needed; I accepted my new diagnosis of a Panic Disorder.
It was a new chapter in my life, and yet another mountain to climb, but I had climbed and conquered the last one, so I knew I could do this one too. The depression I faced early in my life almost took my life, but it made me so much stronger, and I was able to apply the lessons I had learned along the way to my new situation. This time, I wouldn’t deal with it alone. I sought treatment, therapy and support; I faced my anxiety head on, determined to overcome it. I opened up to my partner, my family, my friends, and to my utter shock, nobody ran for the hills. In fact, when I opened up about my mental health, I found that many people in my life could relate much more than I had ever imagined. Like me, they were too worried about being judged. There are more people out there struggling than we could ever anticipate. Statistics already show that 1 in 4 people suffer from a mental health condition, and this is only accounting for those who are willing to admit to it. There are still so many more people out there, alone in the darkness.
This is the reason why now I am sharing my story. After seeing how writing my story and owning up to my mental health issues had helped me in my own recovery, I want to share my story with the world. I published my story to show people that even if they reach the point of hopelessness, like I did, that they can still find their way home again.
I want people to know that they are not alone, and they will not be judged for feeling like they need support. Every day it is becoming more and more acceptable to talk openly about our mental health, but we need to keep this an open discussion.
If we talk about it enough, there will be nothing left to judge.
Written by: Gill Smith
Click here to read Gill’s new book! Make Yourself is Gil’s story of depression, suicide and recovery through self acceptance.